Inventory storage and dispensing mechanism
A vending arrangement for computerized vending machines, retail displays, automated retail stores, utilizes a centralized, robotic gantry associated with companion modules for vending selectable products. The modularized design enables deployment of half-sized or full-sized machines. The robotic gantry is deployed in a centralized module disposed adjacent display and inventory modules. The inventory modules can be fitted to both gantry sides, and doors can be fitted to the gantry front or rear. The gantry comprises an internal, vertically displaceable elevator utilizing a central conveyor for laterally, horizontally moving selected items from associated display and inventory positions to a vending position. The inventory modules comprise dispensing modules adjustably configurable to adjust the storage density of items to be vended. Computerized software enables the display and vending functions, and controls movement of the gantry elevator and dispenser module conveyor to dispense products from twin sides of the gantry by controlling the gantry conveyor.
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This application is a continuation-in-part of U.S. application Ser. No. 12/806,862, filed Aug. 23, 2010, now U.S. Pat. No. 8,392,019 and entitled “Modular Vending With Centralized Robotic Gantry,” which claims the benefit of U.S. Provisional Application Ser. No. 61/237,604, filed Aug. 27, 2009, which applications are incorporated herein by reference. This application also claims the benefit of U.S. Provisional Application Ser. No. 61/391,956, filed Oct. 11, 2010, and entitled “Inventory Storage and Dispensing Mechanism”, which is incorporated herein by reference.FIELD
The present system relates generally to automated and modularized vending machines that can be custom deployed in diverse configurations. More specifically, the present system relates to automated vending systems utilizing improved inventory storage and dispensing modules that can be assembled and configured by hand (without tools) and on-site, to support diverse product ranges, including small product samples and large, odd-sized, odd-shaped, light and heavy items, with components linked together via a virtual integrated network.BACKGROUND
Numerous vending machines exist for selling or vending diverse products through an automated, or ‘self-service’ format. Vending reached popularity in the late 1800's with coin-operated devices dispensing diverse merchandise. More recently vending machines have evolved to include robotic dispensing components, and/or PCs and virtual interfaces. These new vending platforms have emerged in the marketplace under the descriptions such as “automated retail,” “interactive retail,”and/or “interactive retail displays.” Such vending machines may be deployed within a variety of commercial or public settings.
In the vending arts, machines historically have a similar design and orientation that make it difficult or impossible to change machine sizes and configurations, inventory storage sizes and product form factors without rebuilding or redesigning the machine, or components contained therein. Typically machines are “one size fits all” or are customized for a fixed set of product sizes and dimensions. In other words, they are designed to a limiting group of specifications and lack the flexibility and re-configurability to accommodate drastic changes in inventory form factors, or a wide universe of products including very small thin items, or items with variable surfaces (protruding, bulging zones, irregular forms) without secondary packaging.
There are some models of traditional vending machines that have some flexibility to support the changing of inventory to different sized items, but they have limits when it comes to non-square or non-rectangle products, thin products or those that are much greater in one size dimension versus the others. In addition these predecessor systems generally allow objects to be dispensed in only 1-2 orientations (right side up, or upside down) limiting the capability to stock inventory and inventory shelves with maximum efficiency.
It is thus desirable to provide a method and mechanism that enables a wide range of inventory to be dispensed to a user with a common end dispensing system. It is also desirable to be able to reconfigure these inventory and storage components in the field in a short period of time limiting machine downtime.SUMMARY
The present system consists of a number of slats that make up a conveyor of any size, a number of dividers suitable to contain what is being dispensed, a housing, motor, pulleys, gears and a drive belt. In a preferred configuration, numerous inventory modules of various configurations are installed in a series of physical merchandise displays, promotional/digital signage, automated mechanical/dispensing, and/or transactional modules that can be assembled and configured to create an automated retail store, vending unit, or interactive retail display of any size and link together via a virtual integrated network. The present system allows for a highly customizable vending system that can accommodate a wide array of items all utilizing a common inventory storage and dispensing model design.
In accordance with one aspect of the present system, the design utilizes common inexpensive conveyor pieces (slats), dividers, gears, motors, pulleys, belts and fasteners to adjust to a wide range of configurations.
In accordance with another aspect of the present system, the conveyor slats used to form the conveyor can be created in any length.
In accordance with another aspect of the present system, the dividers can be placed at any distance apart within the constraints of one divider per slat and no greater than the entire length of the conveyor.
In accordance with another aspect of the present system, housings can be created to hold and contain as many conveyors as needed to hold items designated for dispensing.
In accordance with another aspect of the present system, housings can vary in density and accommodate as many levels as can fit within the unit's enclosure.
In accordance with another aspect of the present system, a simple plug-in relationship between conveyor parts is established for reconfiguration by hand versus a tool.
In accordance with another aspect of the present system, a unique forked ramp assists the transfer of items from the inventory storage mechanism to a collection or delivery area. This forked ramp reduces errors in product transfer by matching the angle of the ramp with the product divider. This mechanism allows dispensing items to smoothly transfer from a horizontal to an angled surface.
In accordance with another aspect of the present system, an inexpensive universal system of inventory parts has been developed to work in a modular configuration to assemble an inventory system.
The present system and design improves the efficiency of dispensing items by allowing a single design consisting of common parts to accommodate a wide range of product sizes and form factors. It also improves the reliability of dispensing items by accommodating for human error in stocking with mechanical sensors to deal with incorrectly spaced dividers and housing walls to contain items that may shift in position. Inventory storage efficiency is also improved by enabling items to be oriented in multiple directions versus just upright or inverted. This system and design cuts down on excess packaging waste by eliminating the need to repackage most odd-sized items.
The present system and design gives greater flexibility to the merchandising and storage capability of an automated retail machine, enabling a range of merchandise and product storage density to occur within the confines of an existing enclosure. Examples of this could be a machine stocked full of sample sizes vs. full sizes, or a mixture of products that may change frequently. The inventory system is able to accommodate these reconfigurations without any tools, re-engineering, or significant reprogramming of the system. The shelves are able to communicate their location by where the data and power connection is made. As the shelves are inserted into a rack, they make a power and data connection at that level. Depending on where this connection is made, the application can recognize and note the location. A series of connection points exist for possible shelve locations.
The present system provides a common inventory and storage design that can be configured in the field without additional tools or highly specialized labor. This facet provides a great advantage by decreasing additional materials, labor and the amount of components that need to be manufactured and assembled to create an inventory lane.
This is a pronounced advantage in both machine design and manufacturing given the retail marketplace is dynamic and the machine will be able to inexpensively respond to changing merchandising needs. In addition this is a pronounced advantage in supply chain operations given that more merchandise may be stocked in the machine due to optimization of orientation and density, and flexibility to accommodate multiple rows of popular items. In addition, with this design more merchandise can be accommodated without sacrificing the consumer experience given the inventory system can be housed behind a static product display. In addition, the capability to house more merchandise can decrease fulfillment trips and costs associated. In addition, this is a pronounced advantage in system operations and maintainability by decreasing the amount of specialized labor and tools necessary to reconfigure a machine in the field.
This new inventory storage and dispensing component design increases the flexibility in dispensing capability in product size, shape, and orientation. In addition, it decreases the time needed to reconfigure a system to dispense inventory of a different form factor.
Objects of the present system are to provide a product vending machine, automated retail machine, or self-service machine where items are stored inside a secure area and delivered to a user upon a successful transaction in an automated manner.
A basic object is to provide an improved design for product storage and dispensing that cost effectively increases versatility, efficiency, and reliability of the system while decreasing specialized support or tools to alter. This includes, improved product containment systems to increase product storage capacity, ease and efficiency of product handling, dispensing, structural integrity, modularity, customization, shipping/assembly, access and loading of the machine.
Another basic object of the present system is to provide a more effective and flexible vending machine design that can be adapted for its deployment environment by reusing a common dispensing component.
The present system provides a system and method to efficiently configure and deploy a vending system that accomplishes the following:
- a) To provide a system design that can efficiently and effectively dispense a wide range of items (various sizes, shapes and types) in an automated (self-service) platform.
- b) To optimize the inventory storage space inside of an automated retail machine, vending machine or other type of self-service machine.
- c) To provide a design for a single inventory storage and dispensing system to support a wide range of inventory in a flexible and easily configurable/alterable manner.
- d) To provide a cost-effective inventory system design that increases the efficiency of product delivery by opening multiple transaction portals in a machine that utilizes the same centralized mechanism.
- e) To provide an inventory system design that can accommodate very thin, standard, odd-shaped and variable sized inventory with high reliability, in variable densities and without secondary packaging.
- f) To provide a system design that can optimize inventory storage density by providing the capability for products to be oriented in any way that enables more products to fit into storage based on popularity or business need.
- g) To provide an intuitive system design that enables laypeople to reconfigure the inventory system with minimal training and without tools in order to update inventory storage.
- h) To provide an inventory system design that increases the amount of flexibility in terms of product form factors and density of certain form factors in response to changing inventory needs in retail.
- i) To provide an inexpensive and simplistic inventory system for automated retail by designing a system of common reusable parts.
- j) To provide greater reliability in inventory dispensing in automated retail/vending platforms by creating an integrating forked ramp between the inventory and robotics dispenser.
- k) To provide a reliable method to dispense a wide array of product samples within a vending or automated retail machine.
- l) To provide a flexible inventory system design for automated retail and vending that enables accommodation of a broader range of form factors and to determine the necessary configuration to respond to these form factors of the system once deployed in the field.
These and other objects and advantages of the present system, along with features of novelty appurtenant thereto, will appear or become apparent in the course of the following descriptive sections.
In the following drawings, which form a part of the specification and which are to be construed in conjunction therewith, and in which like reference numerals have been employed throughout wherever possible to indicate like parts in the various views:
The present system introduces a preferred mechanism for storing and dispensing items in a vending machine or automated retail store. It is preferably used in conjunction with an isolated and centralized robotic dispensing system that can support multiple inventory areas and technologies within those areas. The present system provides the capability to handle inventory of a wide range of form factors in size and shape, in a wide range of configurations. It also provides the ability to easily change the inventory configuration without any special tools quickly, efficiently and inexpensively.
There is great value in having a flexible inventory storage and dispensing mechanism that is easily reconfigured in the field by hand and with a standardized set of inexpensive parts. Some of the value adds include a wider range of products that can be accommodated without system redesign, decrease of development risks, decrease in costs associated with changes in merchandising and far fewer limits to merchandise/merchandising.
In addition, the re-use of components to build and configure the inventory system lowers the amount of pieces that have to be manufactured, distributed and stored. Inventory trays can be configured to fit merchandise of varying form factors and still use common pieces without any special tools or new parts saving cost and configuration time.
Inventory solutions can be updated and reconfigured to work with the central dispensing mechanism without significant customization of the dispensing mechanism, allowing for rapid accommodation of new types and amounts of merchandise for purchase or promotion.
The flexibility in the inventory system also enables products to be oriented in the most efficient direction in order to increase the density of merchandise and optimize efficiency in the supply chain (hypothetically decreasing the amount of stocking trips to the machine given greater capability to accommodate inventory units). In addition, the flexibility of the inventory system permits items of greater popularity to be stocked at a greater density than less popular items.
The importance of increasing the flexibility and field-based re-configurability of the system by a layperson is that the technology is more capable of handling the quick changes that occur in retail merchandising within discretionary, or trend areas. In other words, the inventory system is able to change with retail dynamics and facilitate merchandising the most popular products without limitations imposed by existing inventory systems on the market today.
The inventory system is flexible enough to accommodate a machine full of what has been designated by brand manufacturers as a “product sample or sachet or trial size” of a product. Typically this unit will come in two form factors, a thin foil packaged sachet, or a vial mounted on a small piece of cardboard. Other form factors could include small cylinders or boxes. The inventory system accommodates a wide universe of samples and full size products. The machine could also be reconfigured to accommodate all sample sizes, or all full sizes of the products (as long as the full sizes met the size requirements).
In addition, due to the robust and flexible divider design and connection with the robotics system, items that are odd-sized will typically not necessitate secondary packaging. The system goes further than existing inventory offerings to accommodate odd, bulky, squishy, irregularly surfaced or weighted items without hypothetically requiring secondary packaging (boxing) of these items.
For purposes of disclosure, the following co-pending U.S. utility applications, which are owned by the same assignee as in this case, are hereby incorporated by references, as if fully set forth herein:
(a) Pending U.S. utility application Ser. No. 12/589,277, entitled “Interactive and 3-D Multi-Sensor Touch Selection Interface For an Automated Retail Store, Vending Machine, Digital Sign, or Retail Display,” filed Oct. 21, 2009, by coinventors Mara Segal, Darrell Mockus, and Russell Greenberg, that was based upon a prior pending U.S. Provisional Application Ser. No. 61/107,829, filed Oct. 23, 2008, and entitled “Interactive and 3-D Multi-Sensor Touch Selection Interface for an Automated Retail Store, Vending Machine, Digital Sign, or Retail Display”;
(b) Pending U.S. utility application Ser. No. 12/589,164, entitled “Vending Machines With Lighting Interactivity And Item-Based Lighting Systems For Retail Display And Automated Retail Stores,” filed Oct. 19, 2009 by coinventors Mara Segal, Darrell Mockus, and Russell Greenberg, that was based upon a prior pending U.S. Provisional Application Ser. No. 61/106,952, filed Oct. 20, 2008, and entitled “Lighting Interactivity And Item-Based Lighting Systems In Retail Display, Automated Retail Stores And Vending Machines,” by the same coinventors; and,
(c) Pending U.S. utility application Ser. No. 12/798,803, entitled “Customer Retention System and Process in a Vending Unit, Retail Display or Automated Retail Store” filed Apr. 12, 2010, by coinventors Mara Segal, Darrell Mockus, and Russell Greenberg, that was based upon a prior pending U.S. Provisional Application Ser. No. 61/168,838 filed Apr. 13, 2009, and entitled “Customer Retention System And Automated Retail Store (Kiosk, Vending Unit, Automated Retail Display And Point-Of-Sale)”, by coinventors Darrell Scott Mockus, Mara Segal and Russell Greenberg.
(d) Pending U.S. utility application Ser. No. 12/806,862, entitled “Modular Vending with Centralized Robotic Gantry” filed Aug. 23, 2010, by coinventors Darrell Mockus, Mara Segal, and Russell Greenberg, that was based upon a prior pending U.S. Provisional Application Ser. No. 61/237,604 filed Aug. 27, 2009, and entitled “System And Method For Dispensing Items In An Automated Retail Store Or Other Self-Service System (Including Vending And Self-Service Check-Out Or Kiosk Platforms)”: by co-inventors Darrell Scott Mockus, Mara Segal and Russell Greenberg, and priority based on said application is claimed.
With initial reference directed to
A housing 101 contains a conveyor 102 that is driven by motor 103. The motor 103 drives the conveyor 102 towards ramp 104 that facilitates the delivery of items stored on the conveyor 102.
With additional reference directed to
A variety of door configurations can be employed. For example, the display modules 210 can be smaller or larger, and they can be located on one or both sides of the control panel 211. The display doors can have multiple square, oval, circular, diamond-shaped, rectangular or any other geometrically shaped windows. Alternatively, the display area can have one large display window with shelves inside.
A customizable, lighted logo area 201 (
Speakers 215 are mounted in the panel 211. A camera 216 capable of capturing video and still images is also mounted in the panel 211. The machine components are set on casters 217 with feet that can be retracted for moving or lowered to position a machine in a deployed location.
Display modules 210 can be attached to the inventory cabinets via a piano hinge 218 running the full height of the door. The necessary electrical and control wiring connects via a wiring harness 221 located on the interior of the inventory cabinet near the hinge connection. These piano style hinges are located on the exterior corners of the inventory cabinets. They are covered with simple metal paneling if they are not in use. The control panel 211 is attached in a similar manner using a piano hinge 218. The necessary electrical and control wiring connect to a wiring harness located in the interior of the control panel 211 (wiring harness not depicted).
With primary reference directed to
The machine software is composed of a number of segments that all work in concert to provide an integrated system. Logical area 302 provides the interface to deal with all of the machine's peripherals such as sensors, keypads, printers and touch screen. Area 303 handles the monitoring of the machine and the notifications the machine provides to administrative users when their attention is required. Area 304 controls the reporting and logging on the machine. All events on the machine are logged and recorded so they can be analyzed later for marketing, sales and troubleshooting analysis. Logical area 305 is responsible for handling the machine's lighting controls.
Logical area 306 is the Inventory Management application. It allows administrative users on location to manage the inventory. This includes restocking the machine with replacement merchandise and changing the merchandise that is sold inside the machine. Administrative users can set the location of stored merchandise and the quantity.
Logical area 307 is the retail store application. It is the primary area that consumers use to interface with the system. Logical area 308 handles the controls required to physically dispense items that are purchased on the machine or physically dispense samples that are requested by a consumer. This area reads the data files that tell the machine how many and what types of inventory systems are connected to the machine. Logical area 309 controls the inventory management system allowing authorized administrative users to configure and manage the physical inventory in the machine. Area 310 controls the payment processing on the machine. It manages the communication from the machine to external systems that authorize and process payments made on the machine. Area 311 is an administrative system that allows an authorized user to manage the content on the machine. This logical area handles the virtual administrative user interface described previously. The content can consist of text, images, video and any configuration files that determine the user's interaction with the machine.
The latter applications interface with the system through an application layer designated in
Computer 450 (
Digital connections are seen on the right of
An open frame power supply 505 (
Power supply 505 (
Subroutine 600 (
The dispensing motor information is used by the dispenser control to turn on the motor that dispenses the product until a mechanical switch is activated determining the product has been dispensed to the gantry elevator. Because of the centralized layout of the robotic gantry, it does not matter which inventory system is connected or even what side from which the product is being dispensed. It only matters what shelf the product is on so the elevator can move to the correct height to collect the product. Step 610 reads in all of the screen templates 611 that determine the layout of the visual selection interface. Step 612 checks if there are any fatal errors. If there are fatal errors, it routes to step 605, otherwise the process continues at step 613. Step 613 reads in all of the screen templates 611 that determine the layout of the user interface and all of the screen asset files 614 associated with the screen templates 611.
These asset files can be images or extended markup files that represent buttons, header banners graphics that fit into header areas, directions or instructions that are displayed in designated areas, image map files that determine which area on an image corresponds represents which area on the physical facade or images representing the physical façade. These assets are cached into local memory in the application. Step 615 checks if there are any fatal errors. If there are fatal errors, it routes to step 605, otherwise the process continues at step 616. Step 616 reads and parses the product catalog files 617. The product catalog stores all of information, graphics, specifications, prices and rich media elements (e.g. video, audio, etc.) for each item or product in the system. Each element is organized according to its identification number. These elements can be stored in a database or organized in a file folder system. These items are cached in application memory. Step 618 checks if there are any fatal errors. If there are fatal errors, it routes to step 605, otherwise the process continues at step 619. Step 619 reads in all of the system audio files 620 and the file that the stores the actions with which each audio file is associated. Audio files can be of any format, compressed or uncompressed such as WAV, AIFF, MPEG, etc. An XML file stores the name of the application event and the sound file name and location. Step 621 checks if there are any fatal errors. If there are fatal errors, it routes to step 905, otherwise the process continues at step 622. Step 622 does a system wide hardware check by communicating with the system peripherals and controllers 302 and 308 (
Subroutine 700 (
Step 709 uses this information to move the elevator tray assembly of the gantry 230 to the correct shelf height for the current item being vended. The elevator height is determined by preset position values that tell the stepper motor where to position itself on the vertical aspect of the gantry. The stepper motor has an encoder that communicates with the controller to verify the position. This combination of hardware allows the software to set a height value and have the stepper motor and the stepper controller ensure the correct position is attained. If there is a detectable error with the elevator mechanics, an error message is generated and sent out by step 706. Step 707 will again try to recover if possible. If the elevator assembly reaches the correct height and position as designated by the product information record, the product collection wings are expanded to create an extended landing area that will catch products coming off the inventory trays 213 (
With reference directed to
With reference directed to
With reference directed to
With reference directed to
It will be understood that certain features and subcombinations are of utility and may be employed without reference to other features and subcombinations. This is contemplated by and is within the scope of the claims.
As many possible embodiments may be made of the present system without departing from the scope thereof, it is to be understood that all matter herein set forth or shown in the accompanying drawings is to be interpreted as illustrative and not in a limiting sense.
1. A customizable vending machine, retail display, or automated retail store comprising:
- a central robotic gantry comprising an elevator vertically movable within the gantry, at least one door fitted upon the front or back of the gantry, the doors comprising a product vend area;
- at least one inventory cabinet attached to at least one gantry side, the inventory cabinet comprising at least one dispensing module adjustably configurable to adjust the storage density of items to be vended, wherein the dispensing module comprises a conveyor and a plurality of dividers releasably couplable to the conveyor, wherein the conveyor comprises a plurality of conveyor slats, individual ones of the dividers are releasably coupled to individual ones of the conveyor slats, wherein individual ones of the dividers include a connection tab receivable in a connection slot in individual ones of the slats to releasably couple the dividers to the slats, wherein the connection tab includes a pair of outwardly biased prongs, the prongs including a first ramped surface to introduce the connection tab into the connection slot and a second ramped surface to releasably retain the connection tab in the connection slot;
- at least one display module adjacent the gantry, the display module containing items to be vended, the display module comprising a plurality of physical displays in which items to be vended are visibly housed; and
- a computer for activating and controlling the gantry and said module; and, software for controlling said computer.
2. The vending machine as defined in claim 1 wherein dispensing module further comprises
- a stop switch; and
- at least one stop flag on individual ones of the dividers configured to activate the stop switch to indicate the conveyor had traveled a sufficient distant to dispense an item to be vended.
3. The vending machine as defined in claim 1 wherein the second ramped surface being configured at a steeper angle to the longitudinal axis of the connection tab than the first ramped surface.
4. The vending machine as defined in claim 1 wherein the dispensing module further comprising a ramp for dispensing items to be vended from the dispensing module to the gantry.
5. The vending machine as defined in claim 4 wherein the ramp include a plurality of forked fingers and individual ones of the dividers include forked tabs that pass between the forked fingers of the ramp as the conveyor travels to dispense items to be vended.
6. The vending machine as defined in claim 1 wherein the dispensing module further comprising: a drive system coupled to the conveyor, the drive system comprising a motor, a pulley system coupled to the motor, and a drive gear coupled to the pulley system and operably coupled to the conveyor.
7. The vending machine as defined in claim 1 further comprising: an inventory tray mounted in the inventory cabinet, the dispensing module releasably coupled to the inventory tray.
8. The vending machine as defined in claim 7 wherein the dispensing module includes a plurality of mounting hooks releasably received in mounting slots in the inventory tray.
9. A dispensing module for a modularized vending machine, retail display, or automated retail store having a robotic gantry, the dispensing module comprising:
- a conveyor; and
- a plurality of dividers releasably couplable to the conveyor to adjustably configure the storage density of items to be vended, wherein the conveyor comprises a plurality of conveyor slats, individual ones of the dividers are releasably coupled to individual ones of the conveyor slats, wherein individual ones of the dividers include a connection tab receivable in a connection slot in individual ones of the slats to releasably couple the dividers to the slats, wherein the connection tab includes a pair of outwardly biased prongs, the prongs including a first ramped surface to introduce the connection tab into the connection slot and a second ramped surface to releasably retain the connection tab in the connection slot.
10. The dispensing module as defined in claim 9 further comprises
- a stop switch; and
- at least one stop flag on individual ones of the dividers configured to activate the stop switch to indicate the conveyor had traveled a sufficient distant to dispense an item to be vended.
11. The dispensing module as defined in claim 9 wherein the second ramped surface being configured at a steeper angle to the longitudinal axis of the connection tab than the first ramped surface.
12. The dispensing module as defined in claim 9 wherein the dispensing module further comprising a ramp for dispensing items to be vended from the dispensing module to the gantry.
13. The dispensing module as defined in claim 12 wherein the ramp includes a plurality of forked fingers and individual ones of the dividers include forked tabs that pass between the forked fingers of the ramp as the conveyor travels to dispense items to be vended.
14. The dispensing module as defined in claim 9 wherein the dispensing module further comprising: a drive system coupled to the conveyor, the drive system comprising a motor, a pulley system coupled to the motor, and a drive gear coupled to the pulley system and operably coupled to the conveyor.
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Filed: Oct 11, 2011
Date of Patent: Mar 25, 2014
Patent Publication Number: 20120123587
Assignee: Utique, Inc. (Menlo Park, CA)
Inventors: Darrell Scott Mockus (San Francisco, CA), Mara Clair Segal (San Francisco, CA)
Primary Examiner: Timothy Waggoner
Application Number: 13/271,061
International Classification: B65G 59/00 (20060101);